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Authors: Catherine Richmond

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BOOK: Spring for Susannah
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Susannah could hardly believe Jesse would allow, even appreciate, her veterinary skills. The thought lightened her steps as she carried dinner to the field.

Jesse opened the dinner basket and inhaled appreciatively. “Calves and fresh bread, all in the same day.” He grinned. “Can you pull a chicken out of your hat?”

Was he joking? Criticizing? His face raced through expressions faster than she could read them, and he stared at her until she couldn't help but squirm. Finally he blinked and straightened. “You've never been teased before.”

“No.” She changed the subject, tipping her head toward the wheat. “You've done a lot since yesterday.”

“Should have this cut by tonight. I'll start on the south field tomorrow. It's larger. Takes two weeks to cut. And I've got to check the garden, see what the rabbits left us.”

“I could help with that. Where is it?”

“Other side of the spring. Thought I'd be taking care of you, but you're taking care of me.” He reached toward her.

She put a plum in his hand. “How many acres have you cultivated?”

Fatigue lined his face. “Too many to harvest by hand but not enough to hire a cutting machine. It's a big help having you bring dinner.” He finished the water and stood. “I'll be back early this evening.”

“You should have slept in the bed last night.”

He tipped her straw hat and planted a kiss on her forehead. “Married men don't sleep alone.” Then he sauntered across the field, whistling “Buffalo Gals.”

Chapter 6

My very own veterinary surgeon! What a blessing!

F
ive-year-old Susannah Underhill nestled into the cook's cushiony
lap. The woman murmured soft words, removed the bee's stinger,
dried her tears. An unfamiliar feeling of security warmed the little girl
and supplanted the pain in her finger
.

Mother's steps tapped into the kitchen. “Mrs. Schiller! My instructions
regarding the child were clear: no mollycoddling.

“But, ma'am—

“Mother, I was stung by a bee.” Susannah displayed her wound
.

“Ladies do not interrupt. Go to your room.

Susannah left the comfort of Cook's arms and dragged herself
upstairs, but the warm heaviness around her waist remained
.

The contradiction dissipated her dream. She opened her eyes. Jesse's arm stretched across her; his hand rested on the mattress in front of her face. His index finger and thumb alternately twitched, tendons flickering under work-hardened skin. In her exhaustion last night, she had forgotten to reassemble the blanket fence. Susannah lay close enough to absorb his warmth, to hear his deep breathing.

Was she safe here? Maybe. If he just wouldn't expect so much. But his questions unnerved her like an oral examination at school: the topic was a surprise, the timing abrupt, and a passing grade uncertain. Even in the midst of his long-winded monologues, he wanted more than clichés and platitudes from her. If only he'd stop prying and be more easygoing like his minister brother.

Did Reverend Mason have any idea how Jesse lived? He knew about the lack of a church; he'd performed the proxy wedding. But of course, that wasn't enough for Jesse. He insisted on repeating the vows—with only an ox for a witness.

The thought of the ox brought Susannah's attention around to Ma Ox and her newborn calves. When they were bucket trained, milk and butter would be added to the menu.

A deep voice whispered, “Good morning,” in her ear.

She inched away. “Sleep well?”

“Like a log. Don't remember you coming to bed.”

“Those calves tired me too. Speaking of which, I'd better go check on them.” She slid from his grasp.

The noise from the back of his throat sounded like the ox's moan. “I'll go out so you can get dressed.”

The calves moved steadier on their legs today. Susannah helped Jesse guide them to the field. On the walk back, he reached for Susannah's hand. She crossed her arms. His fingers wormed under her elbow. She loosened, moving his hand away.

“So what's on your calendar this fine morning, Mrs. Mason?”

“I should make preserves before the plums overripen.”

“All right. I'll bring more water. Save some jam for me.”

When Jesse returned at sundown, Susannah was still canning. Three kettles boiled on the stove. Fruit, jars, and the sugar tin sat on the table. Every utensil was in use. She fought a losing battle with flies lured by the sweet smell.

“I'm so sorry,” she said. “I didn't realize canning would take so long. I've never made preserves by myself.” She tensed. Would he beat her? Yell? Send her back?

Much to her amazement, he did none of those things.

“I'll help. Tell me what to do.”

As Susannah poured the fruit mixture into the jars, Jesse sealed them with the three part lids. When he closed the last one, she apologized again. “I'm sorry about supper.”

“Plenty of times I've worked too late to fix a hot meal. In fact, let's picnic.” He packed a basket and tucked the buffalo hide under his arm. “Mrs. Mason, bring the canteen, please.”

Jake circled around her as she followed Jesse out and up the hill into fading light. “What's wrong with your master?” Susannah whispered to the dog. “He doesn't get angry, doesn't lecture, doesn't shout. I'll do better tomorrow. If he gives me another chance.”

A mourning dove called its five-note song, accompanied by a cricket chorus. The high winds of the afternoon had calmed to a soft breeze, enough to keep the mosquitoes at bay.

At the top of the hill, Jesse rolled out the hide and spread his arms. “The heavens declare the glory of God!”

All across the horizon, a magnificent sunset lit the sky with orange and purple and pink. Above them, the stars began to come out one by one.

Susannah watched as the panorama unfolded above her. “So many stars! The North Star, Milky Way, Big Dipper. Look—a falling star! Did you see it?”

“Nope. Missed it. Where?”

“To the north. There's another!”

“Two in less than a minute. Just for you!”

“Could they be part of the Perseid meteor shower? No, it's over by mid-August. Next year—” The words slipped out before Susannah could call them back. She glanced at Jesse, but he seemed not to notice.

“Supper and a show. Wonderful!” He passed her a cracker sandwich. “Hmm, good jam.” His finger squeaked against the bowl. “You'd better have a taste.”

His silhouette blocked the starlight. She turned her head and a sticky kiss landed below her ear. She tried to relax, but her arms wouldn't move from their defensive position on his shirtfront. His next kiss grazed her cheek.

“Jesse.”

“You remembered my name.”

“This is not—”

“I know.” He whispered, “It's your time of the month.”

Was nothing private? Susannah twisted away, grateful the darkness hid her blush. “Men aren't supposed to know . . .”

“Didn't Matt tell you we have four sisters?” The canteen gurgled. “Anyway, you need more courting time.”

She gulped in a breath. “Thank you.”

“You get a better view lying down.” He rolled onto his back, pulled her beside him, and settled her head on his shoulder.

“I've been thinking—” His voice came out muffled. “About marching through the woods in Virginia, near the Shenandoah. Rumor said Jeb Stuart hid there, that behind every rock itched a Reb wanting to take us out. Turns my guts to ice thinking of it. We'd try to be quiet, but someone'd swat a fly, step on a twig, cough. Those Rebs watched us sneak through their woods. I'd have given a month's rations to know where they were.” His words came clearer. He must have turned toward her. “I know what it's like to be afraid. Susannah, we're on the same side, you and me.”

She tried to respond, but the words wouldn't come.

“If someone hurt you, if you tell me, then I won't do the wrong thing, and we'll be easier with each other.”

“I'm fine.”

“I thought it might not be so difficult to talk out here in the dark.” He paused for three long breaths. “Guess not.”

Susannah had been shy her whole life. Perhaps she wasn't cut out to be a wife. She had often thought she would have been better off alone. By herself, perhaps, she could open her Pandora's box of thoughts, sort through them, make peace with them. In front of this stranger who pried at her with a crowbar? Impossible.

“Guess not,” he said again, his words so slow and heavy they hung in Susannah's ears instead of blowing away.

Susannah jerked awake and sat up. “We fell asleep outside.”

“Good morning,” Jesse said. He stretched toward the rosy glimmer in the east. “What's wrong? Weren't you warm enough?”

“What will people think?”

“What people? Jake had a good time. Didn't you, boy?”

The dog's curly tail wagged in agreement.

The sky turned the color of peach skin. “What a sunrise,” Susannah murmured. “And last night's stars—”

“God's beautiful creation.” He wrapped an arm around her and kissed the top of her head. “Like you.”

With her hair matted and dress wrinkled? Did he need spectacles? “If you'll let go, I'll fix you a hot breakfast to make up for last night's supper.”

“Breakfast isn't what I'm hungry for, Miss Susannah.” His eyelids lowered. He drew a line down her neck.

Oh, this man! Susannah grabbed the food basket and marched down the hill. Jesse followed, serenading the dawn with a jaunty rendition of “Little Old Sod Shanty.”

When they reached the front door, Susannah bent to examine three purplish-white flowers planted among her herbs. “Asters?”

“They grow wild hereabouts. Fellow's supposed to bring flowers when he's courting.” He tipped his head, a question in his eyes.

“Thank you.”

Jesse finished his morning chores all too quickly and came back to roost on the trunk while Susannah finished cooking breakfast. The cornbread would be a minute yet. She served bacon onto plates and put them on the table along with salt, pepper, forks, knives. The smell of cornbread filled the room. She jerked open the oven door. One corner had burned to charcoal.

Susannah's shoulders drooped. He might as well know: he'd married a half-wit.

Jesse said grace, then served himself the scorched corner without commenting. “Could use your help with the wheat today.”

“If I bound the sheaves, you could keep cutting.”

“Exactly. We'll get caught up on this harvest.”

“You lost a whole day fetching me.”

“Can't count it a lost day, when I gain a wife.”

“I'll pack dinner.”

“You could borrow a pair of my pants.”

Susannah had never worn hand-me-downs or borrowed clothes. Wearing men's pants,
this
man's pants, seemed indecent. “No, thank you.”

BOOK: Spring for Susannah
5.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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